Pacific Opera designer Ian Rye (front) and artistic director Timothy Vernon stand among doric columns under construction for the upcoming production, Ariadne auf Naxos. Victoria’s opera house is the only one in Canada to build it props, sets and costumes from scratch.

Ariadne auf Naxos: Opera from the ground up

Pacific Opera Victoria is the only Canadian company that builds its set and props locally and loans pieces out across North America

In Pacific Opera’s cavernous carpentry hall, scattered log-sized doric columns appear plucked from the debris field of the Parthenon itself. Off to the side, a chariot awaits its diva.

Victoria’s ambitious opera company prides itself on building performances from the ground up, and its 10,000 square foot shop on Discovery Street is ground zero. Next month, these faux-marble wood and cardboard columns will provide the Greek backdrop for Ariadne auf Naxos, a lively and beloved opera that pokes fun at the culture of the art form.

A kind of meta-opera composed by Richard Strauss and first performed in 1912, Ariadne auf Naxos takes the audience backstage as two theatre troupes prepare to perform at a home in Vienna, and opens a window into the intrigues and squabbles among cast and crew. With time running short, the wealthy patron demands that two scheduled acts, a tragedy and comedy, be performed as one.

“The first half is about the mayhem off stage. The mayhem of a tenor diva and the composer having meltdown, of the wealthy patron making unreasonable demands. It’s about people behaving badly under strenuous circumstances,” says set designer Ian Rye. “It emulates real life, but exaggerated. The characters are archetypes – we call it ‘divas behaving badly.’”

It’s a real life scenario not foreign to the company, but Pacific Opera’s artistic director Timothy Vernon gives his performers plenty of latitude.

“I have particular regard for singers. The pressure is unreal. It’s like singing in the shower, except the curtain gets ripped off and the lights are on you,” he said laughing. “When a singer stands unmasked on stage, and you have to produce a sound out of your body, it is very special.”

Vernon is conducting Ariadne auf Naxos and is regarded Canada’s reining Strauss expert. In Vienna he studied under a direct pupil of the German composer – Rye joked that Vernon is known as “Der Strauss Meister.”

“It is one of the most popular operas (Strauss) wrote and a great achievement of the form. It is top of the pile where the 20th century is concerned,” Vernon said. “It takes on all elements of opera. It’s slightly comedic and tongue-in-cheek. It takes people backstage, and people love the backstage.”

The opera will be performed in German with English surtitles, and includes a cast of Canadian performers for an all-Canadian production, a relatively new phenomenon. “Now we have two or three generations of Canadian opera singers. Thirty years ago that wasn’t the case,” Vernon said. “We make opera from the ground up and only Victoria can make this happen. Every opera imagined there is a creative team to build it, instead of borrowing from likely a U.S. city.”

Pacific Opera is the only opera company in Canada to build its sets and props, which are then loaned out, currently to companies in Vancouver, Edmonton and Santa Barbara, Calif. The Victoria production facility also produces elaborate costumes, sets and props for theatre, and was used to film four season of the children’s TV show Tiga Talk.

To the uninitiated, opera can be daunting, but Vernon said most people can find a connection to the story and music. People don’t have to understand German to relate to a powerful boss making unreasonable demands, the stress of producing a show, and the eye-rolling melodramas of overbearing divas.

“To see a well performed, well sung production energizes you,” Vernon says. “The music reaches into your emotional self right away. To hear the orchestra set the scene and tell a story, there is an immediacy of emotion. You can shut your eyes in fear of beauty, but you can’t shut your ears.”

Ariadne auf Naxos is at the Royal Theatre on Feb. 13, 15, 21 and 23 (matinee). See pov.bc.ca.

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